With the launch of the Delaware “clean slate” campaign Feb. 24, state lawmakers are now poised to automate the expungement of eligible criminal records this session. This move would build off the critical Delaware Adult Expungement Reform Act passed by legislators two years ago and signals an opportunity to uplift second chances and the state economy.

Thanks to that 2019 act, more people who were arrested but not found guilty of a crime are guaranteed to have their records cleared if they apply for expungement to the State Bureau of Identification (SBI). And those convicted of certain offenses are also able to receive an expungement after a waiting period.

Research suggests that within a few to several years, people with a criminal record who remain crimefree are no more likely than the general population to commit a new crime. Thus, their criminal record holds very little to no meaningful utility.

Yet maintaining it brings significant damage to them and their families. Research also shows that people with a criminal record are less likely to receive a job offer or callback than similar candidates without a record. And scholarly work demonstrates that criminal records often prevent individuals from procuring housing, education and other critical opportunities.

The employment effects of criminal records also mean unrealized potential in the American economy. A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that reductions in employment due to the proliferation of felony convictions cost the U.S. $78 billion to $87 billion in annual gross domestic product in 2014.

While the Delaware Adult Expungement Reform Act was a great start, requiring individuals to apply for an expungement or file a petition to the court often restricts the number of people who ultimately receive this second chance. Indeed, when New York expanded eligibility for expungement to an additional 600,000 or so people in 2017, they found that less than 1% of people had actually gotten an expungement two years later.

It also takes away time and resources from people seeking an expungement and the court system. For example, to get a discretionary expungement, people have to first determine if they’re eligible, obtain the necessary forms and pay a fee to request their records and fingerprints. They then have to wait four to six weeks to receive those records, only to then file a petition and pay an additional filing fee. Once the petition is filed, they may have to wait months to actually have a judge consider their case, possibly hold a hearing (if necessary) and grant an expungement. Given court backlogs during the pandemic, these hurdles have become all the more difficult to overcome.

The answer to these two problems is simple: automation. By automating expungement, policymakers would ensure that neither time nor resources prevents eligible individuals from obtaining a second chance expediently. It would likewise allow judges and SBI to focus their attention on other, potentially more important matters.

Moreover, by expanding the pool of legally eligible people who actually receive an expungement, automation could bring significant gains to the community. The previously mentioned study in Michigan found that people saw a 25% jump in their income on top of what would’ve been expected within two years of receiving an expungement.

Some individuals may be hesitant to embrace automation due to concerns around public safety. But when more people are able to secure well-paying, stable jobs, housing and education, this often translates to gains in both public safety and the economy. At a minimum, research suggests that expungement brings no harm to public safety: The arrest rates among those in Michigan who had their records expunged were similar to those among the larger population.

If Delaware were to embrace automatic expungement, the First State would be joining good company. Pennsylvania passed automatic expungement reform (nicknamed “clean slate”) in 2018 and is expecting approximately 30 million Pennsylvanians to get a second chance as a result. Utah and Michigan have followed, and other states are considering similar reforms this year.

Delaware’s previous reforms were great first steps in extending second chances to those with arrest and conviction records. But if policymakers want to truly promote second chances, they should support automating the expungement process.

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